Tony Bennett has wasted little time in improving the fortunes of the Virginia men’s basketball program, reeling in a top 10 recruiting class during his first few months in town. Now the real work begins. Entering his first season at UVA, Bennett is eager to start the process of rebuilding and instilling in his players the principles that helped him earn Associated Press National Coach of the Year honors at Washington State University in 2006-07.
What have you enjoyed so far about being in Charlottesville?
The longer I’ve been here, the more enjoyable it’s been. One of the drawing cards that brought me here, among a number of things, was the college town atmosphere. This is such a good place to raise your family.
To work in a facility like [the John Paul Jones Arena] every day really makes me thankful for the opportunity I’ve been given. I just look around and say, “Wow.” That’s kind of an overriding thing for our staff—this is a tremendous opportunity; we want to do well and do it the right way. UVA athletics’ theme is “Uncompromised Excellence.” I like that.
What would a successful first season look like to you?
In the end you’re judged on your record. I understand that totally. But when you’re building something, you want to look at qualitative over quantitative, things that will be the building blocks to becoming very competitive. We’ll probably go through some growing pains, but I want to come out of this season saying, “We have laid a foundation.”
I’d love to win a bunch of games right away, and that will certainly be our aim, but it’s more just focusing on the process. Throw yourself into that and don’t worry about the end results. They’ll take care of themselves.
Your staff includes alumni who have been part of the basketball program, Jason Williford (Col ’95) and Mike Curtis (Educ ’98). What went into those decisions?
I really wanted to try to connect with guys who know UVA so we could hit the ground running. Jason is one of those guys who, in my opinion, was everything that’s right about being a student athlete. He loves this school with a passion. In his interview, he wore the khakis, the blue blazer and the tie. He said, “I’m just giving you a taste of what you might see at football games.” He’s through and through Virginia. Mike Curtis also loves this place. His experience in the NBA as the strength coach for the [Memphis] Grizzlies and the University of Michigan makes him a really valuable asset for our kids.
Do you have core principles as a coach?
We have five pillars that our program is based on. The first principle is humility. Don’t think too highly of yourself. The second is passion. Don’t be lukewarm. Our third is unity. Basketball is one of the greatest team games there is because there can be individual talent, but boy, if the guys come together, they can be so good together. And they can overcome more talent or tough situations. The fourth is servanthood. Whatever your role is, be a servant to the team and make your teammates better. The last one is thankfulness. Be thankful certainly when there’s great success, but also be thankful for what you’ve learned through the hard times, because there’s great wisdom in those experiences.
What makes a good leader?
I think people who are tough but fair. They have a vision for what they want. They’ll adjust, but they have some constants. The coaches who have really lasted, when you study them, they have been pretty true to what they think works. Yes, they have adjusted, but there are constants that they haven’t backed down from.
How do you get away from the pressures of your job?
Just hanging out with family. I’ve got an 8-year-old and a 7-year-old, so that takes most of my time. My wife and I like to watch a movie when we can. I’ll go out and play a few holes of golf if there’s a 45-minute window, but don’t get to do that much at all.
What are the best and worst parts of being a coach?
There’s nothing better than when you see kids get it, and you do something collectively that people didn’t think you could. The hardest part is trying to balance the time that pulls you away from your family. That’s the hardest thing, being a husband and a father and still getting the job done.